3 Useful philosophical Questions to Ask Yourself Today
Philosophy is often regarded as an irrelevant subject. Philosophers ask esoteric, abstract questions with little impact on everyday life. But, Philosophy can be useful and provide important insights into issues that affect your well-being. The key is knowing what kinds of questions to ask and where to look for insights. Here are some good philosophical questions to being with.
Is this a need or a want? We often don’t stop to ask ourselves this question when we are shopping for the latest thing whatever that thing might be. We simply say “I need this” without reflection.
The philosopher Epicurus distinguished these and discussed the problems in confusing them long ago. There are three categories of desires. The first are natural and necessary and include the basics: food, clothing, shelter, as well as friendship, freedom, and thinking. We require these in order to be happy. And, for Epicurus, these are all that we require in order to be happy.
But, there are also natural and unnecessary desires (wants which become confused with needs). These include many of the luxury items in our life; fancy food, clothing, big houses, fancy cars. All of which we desire but do not require in order to be happy. The problem occurs when we believe we need these things, purchase them, and then find that we have to work to afford them. So, people end up working, not for themselves, but for their things.
Third, Epicurus identifies the unnatural and unnecessary desires for power and fame. These may be at the root of our belief that the natural but unnecessary desires are really needs. After all, if you strongly desire fame and power, you will deduce that you need those things that Epicurus classifies as natural but unnecessary.
There is a wonderful quote from Einstein about the perils of fame: "With fame, I have become more and more stupid, which of course, is a very common phenomenon. But you have to take it all with good humor. Charlie Chaplin had it right. When he and I met we were surrounded by people calling our names. 'What does it all mean?' I asked him. 'Nothing.' he replied."
Fame and power are truly unnatural and unnecessary.
If I am offended, am I harmed? We often make more of offensive comments and ideas than we should. We do this, in part, because we tend to equate offense and harm.
A good resource on this subject is Lou Marinoff’s book The Big Questions. In one chapter he asks this very question “if you’re offended are you harmed? The answer turns out to be no. Consider this. Suppose someone walks up to you and steps on your toe. You have no choice about whether that’s going to hurt. It is! So, here you are harmed. Being harmed is involuntary, you have no choice about whether to feel pain or not. Now, offense is not like this. If someone walks up to you and says “wow, you have really big feet” you have a choice to make. The choice is how you will react to this comment. I’m sure you’ve heard the expressions “no offense intended” and “none taken.” These are very revealing. Offense is something that can be offered and it’s also something that can be taken. But, importantly for us, offense is also something that can be refused. You have a choice in this and that’s what distinguishes offense from harm.
As human beings we are emotional beings. But, we are not slaves to our emotions. We have the ability to reason and think and this can aid us in our emotional reactions. This was a very important insight of the ancient Stoic philosophers. The basic idea behind stoicism is that we have no control over external circumstances. What we do have control over is out attitude towards them. As Epictetus once said “it is not things which disturb us, but our attitude towards them.” This perfectly sums up the stoic idea as well as how to handle offense. Similarly, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said “if you are pained by any external thing, it is not the thing that disturbs you, but your judgment about it. And, it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.”
Am I obligated to harm myself if it will help others? This question highlights something very common in our everyday thinking: hidden misconceptions. The power of philosophy cases like this is to highlight the misconception by asking a simple question.
In the case of this question I think the hidden misconception goes something like this. If I focus on caring for myself that is selfish. To avoid being selfish I have to focus on giving to others and helping others even if, perhaps especially if, I am harmed in the process. What better evidence of my selflessness than the harm I incur by helping others. But, are you obligated to harm yourself? Is it really selfish to take care of yourself?
Let’s consider what it means to be selfish. Does being selfish mean doing things that are in your self-interest? Of course not! You can exercise and eat healthy foods and these things are clearly in your self-interest. But, no one would claim that you were being selfish in doing so! It is sometimes argued that people only do things for others for selfish reasons: it makes them feel good for example. But, think about this for a moment. If doing something good for others makes you feel good doesn’t that show that you are not selfish? After all, a truly selfish person would not feel good in doing things for others. They would feel good doing things for themselves!
Helping others is a good thing but you are not morally obligated to do so if it means harming yourself in the process. In fact, philosophers like Ayn Rand argue that harming yourself in the service of others is what is immoral. In fact, sometimes the best way to help others is to begin by helping yourself. Here’s an example to illustrate this. Suppose you are on a plane and the plane crashes. You survive the impact along with many other passengers. Now the question is what do you do. Do you stop to try to help others get off the plane or do you worry mainly about getting yourself off of the plane? It turns out the best thing you can do, for yourself and everyone else, is to get yourself off the plane. By doing so, you are getting yourself out of the way so others can get out as well. By stopping to help you are, unintentionally creating an obstacle to others’ escape.